Igniting Learning: Creating the Conditions of Student Success

By: Risa Sackman, Director of US Education, FHI 360

Most educators I know are not sad to be turning the calendar pages to 2022. This year presented myriad unprecedented challenges for students, their teachers, and their families. Learning is hard work in the best of conditions, but disruptions in schooling, ongoing vacillation between in-person and remote school, fears and sickness, and social isolation made 2021 a year for this history books. The tangible result is what researchers are calling learning loss or unfinished learning — which mostly means students are not on track with the grade level knowledge and skills they are expected to haveHow to best help students catch up to where they should be while igniting their engagement, motivation, and connection is a burning question on everyone’s mind.  

Acceleration over remediation 

Researchers are suggesting that schools should focus on learning acceleration instead of academic remediation. Remediation often means re-teaching prior knowledge and skills before moving on to the grade level content. Traditional approaches to remediation run the risk of never getting to grade level instruction because they are focused on making up for what wasn’t learned in the past, and help them to catch up, rather than focusing on what is most important for the current year. On the other hand, learning acceleration refers to a range of evidence-based instructional strategies designed to help all students access and learn the most important grade-level content, knowledge and skills as quickly as possibleIn addition, the whole-child, growth mindset philosophy of accelerated learning is more in line with nurturing students’ confidence and engagement than the traditional remediation approach, where students may feel they are not capable of academic success, and where learning is often focused on drill and practice of specific target skills. 

Accelerating learning is not about teaching faster  

If we knew how to teach in ways so students learn faster, we would have been doing that for a long time. Educational leaders continue to emphasize that learning acceleration can not be about trying to fit the last 18 months into the first semester of the school year. Rather it is about providing scaffolding supports and evidence-based tools and strategies to help students learn at grade level. That may mean helping students prior to, during, and after a lesson that is given at grade level to ensure they have the tools they need to fully understand and interact with the materials.  

Below are four strategies schools and districts are using to reimagine systems and structures to prioritize accelerated learning. 

Relevant curriculum: To reconnect students with school and engage their passion for learning, curriculum and instruction must feel relevant to their lives. Teachers should be prepared to justify the inherent applicability and importance of any learning activity and should ensure both the content and pedagogy. The role of education must include a dedication to providing students with the knowledge and tools to make sense of the what’s happening in the world around them, see their place in it, and have the knowledge and skills to navigate challenges and make a meaningful impact. When youth care about school and have the right kinds of supporters, they develop transferable habits and practices that help them to become more self-directed learners and more successful adults. 

Classroom-based learning acceleration: Students need a relevant and engaging learning environment that puts them at the center and ignites their passion and commitment to learn. This can be supported through three evidence-based strategies:

  1. A positive youth development approach that builds students’ strengths and opportunities and focuses on the whole child;  
  2. Differentiated instruction, where teaching and learning takes place at grade level with teachers and other staff providing individualized and targeted scaffolds and supports to support each student to access the content and acquire the essential skills; and  
  3. A focus on the most relevant knowledge and skills so time can be dedicated to mastery of a few critical things rather than a cursory exploration of many. 
    Central to all three strategies is a student-centered, whole-child approach where students are truly known and valued can lay the groundwork for more systemic, equitable education for all students. 

High-dosage tutoring: A particularly effective strategy is to design learning sessions that are provided by a certified teacher or other highly qualified education and that are delivered at least three times a week for at least 30 minutes each session, in groups of five or fewer students. Tutors cover content and connect with regular classroom instruction, but also meet students where they are to help build bridges and on-ramps so students can quickly access the key grade-level content and skills. Tutoring sessions can happen within a strategic intervention period during the school day, or they can take place before or after school. To avoid teacher burn-out and over-extending the capabilities of the school system, tutoring can also be provided by community-based organizations or local universities. 

Out-of-school and summer learning: Nothing takes the place of time. Dedicated time to study, explore, experience, wonder, and practice is vitally important to helping students develop their character, critical thinking skills, and passions. Providing extended school days, structured after-school, weekend school, and summer learning opportunities give students additional hours to learn and grow. When these programs meet a set of evidence-based criteria, they have been shown to lead to positive student outcomes such as math and language arts achievement and improved self-confidence, attendance, and college and career readiness. Out-of-school time learning can also have a wide range of benefits for young people, including safety, physical and mental health, social and emotional development, and academic learning.  

Igniting learning is critical to ensuring students are connected and engaged 

For learning acceleration to be successful, school districts must make a meaningful commitment to ensuring students are truly connected and engaged with school and with learning. A 2021 EdWeek Research Center survey found that student motivation and morale were significantly lower during the pandemic that they were prior to the pandemic. And motivation and morale — key characteristics of engagement — are what drive students to care about learning, push themselves to take ownership of their learning, and remain disciplined and committed, even when learning is hard. Since student engagement is important to learning, achievement, and social-emotional well-being, reconnecting and engaging students should be top priority.  

So, as districts strive to adopt an accelerated learning strategy designed to support student learning, they must make sure that whatever approach they use ignites students’ curiosity, attention, and involvement and nurtures their sense of belonging and connectedness. Because a connected and engaged student is poised to learn and grow, collaborate and contribute, and transform the world – both for themselves and others. 

Photo by Jeswin Thomas on Unsplash